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Over-the-Top Reagan Miniseries Is Woefully Undersourced

November 9, 2003

The TV miniseries about Ronald Reagan attributes two devastating lines to the former president, according to leaked reports. They are: “I am the Antichrist” and “They that live in sin shall die in sin,” which is presented as Reagan’s smug dismissal of homosexuals who die of AIDS. Is there any clear evidence that Reagan ever spoke these lines or anything like them? In a word, no.

The Antichrist remark in the script reflects Reagan’s interest in Armageddon, the biblical account of the world’s final battle. The issue came up many times during Reagan’s career, including a presidential debate in 1984, when Marvin Kalb of NBC asked him whether he thought a nuclear Armageddon was near. Reagan said soothingly that no one knows if the biblical prophecies will be fulfilled in a thousand years or the day after tomorrow. However, there were signs that Reagan believed the end might be close. In a 1980 interview on Jim Bakker’s PTL network, Reagan said, “We may be the generation that sees Armageddon.”

But where did the miniseries staff get the idea that Reagan thought he was the Antichrist? Elizabeth Egloff, who wrote the final version of the script, told me it came from Page 247 of Lou Cannon’s well-respected 1991 book, “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.” Cannon wrote: “As Reagan understood the story, Russia would be defeated by an acclaimed leader of the West who would be revealed as the Antichrist.”

This hints at the possibility that Reagan may have thought of himself as the Antichrist, but where did the hint come from? Cannon’s sentence is oddly phrased, not footnoted, and does not cite anybody as saying Reagan ever said or thought he was the Antichrist. Cannon told me, that although he does not recall where he got that sentence, “Nobody ever told me or anybody else, as far as I know, that Reagan thought he was the Antichrist.”

So we are left with no one, apparently, standing behind the “I am the Antichrist” comment inserted into Reagan’s mouth in a miniseries that will be seen and believed by millions. An explosive charge like this about a president ought to require two solid sources. On the evidence so far, the miniseries producers had none.

Reagan’s so-called anti-homosexual remark is based on a line in Edmund Morris’ book, “Dutch.” Morris wrote that his “research cards” (whatever that means) have Reagan saying, “Maybe the Lord brought down this plague” because “illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.” The “research cards” appear to be the only source for this. “Dutch” is as shaky as any docudrama, with made-up dialogue, and the author himself inserted into the book as a fictional character who knew the young Reagan.

Note that homosexuals are not mentioned in the quote, and Morris adds that “to be fair” Reagan made no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual sex in the “illicit” comment. Reagan has no track record of insulting or penalizing gays. He and Nancy had many gay friends in Hollywood. Whatever his beliefs about “illicit” sex, it is not defensible to have Reagan saying in effect that gays deserve to die. The two producers of the miniseries, both openly gay, should have been more careful about this, but apparently they couldn’t resist projecting onto Reagan what some mean-spirited people really do believe.

The slur against Reagan surely reflects AIDS as an issue in the culture war, as well as the charge that Reagan didn’t deal with AIDS aggressively because it was mostly killing gay men. There’s no evidence for that charge. It would be fairer to say that Reagan, like many conservatives, thought that halting the AIDS epidemic depended less on vast government programs than on stopping the irresponsible personal behavior that spreads AIDS (unprotected sex, sharing drug needles). People ought to be able to criticize Reagan’s position without calling him a murderer of gays, as the group ACT-UP repeatedly did during the 1980s and playwright Tony Kushner more or less did last week.

The problem here is that the Hollywood left is probably as incapable of doing a fair docudrama about Reagan as Richard Mellon Scaife would be filming one about the Clintons. Alessandra Stanley, the TV critic of The New York Times, put it mildly when she wrote that the producers of the Reagan miniseries “appear to have sacrificed showmanship to self-righteousness, adopting a preachy, liberal agenda.”

Even when dealing with fumbles by the Reagan administration, the script manages to be over the top. The Reagan team shamefully tried to scant the poor by classifying ketchup as a vegetable in school lunch programs. This is handled as unsubtly as possible by having Judy Davis, portraying Nancy Reagan, shrieking at the Reagan character: “Ketchup is a vegetable! It is not a meat, right? So IT IS a vegetable!”

Davis said she hoped the script would teach Americans to scrutinize their leaders more carefully. Maybe the lesson is more obvious: Now we scrutinize our politically loaded TV dramas more carefully.

From → Media

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